Global Inequality

I do not believe in sustainable development, or at least not in what passes today for sustainable development. Ever since this word has come into vogue the environmental situation in the world has worsened. The changing climate due to human activity is plain to see all over the planet: bio-diversity is threatened, more species are at risk of becoming extinct, forests are disappearing, and the abyss between the rich and the poor is more sharply defined. The market, not the sustaining capacity of the Earth, determines what is sustainable. Resources are finite, and the conflict between economy and ecology has become more acute. Proof can be found in the critical state of the oceans, where 70% of the fisheries are in a state of collapse, and one quarter of marine life taken by the fishing industry is incidental capture to be thrown away.

Official delegations of the 146 countries that belong to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and thousands of representatives from the civil society will congregate in Cancun from September 10 until September 14 for the fifth ministerial conference of this organization. The main point of contention in the commercial world between the rich, emerging and poor countries is agriculture. Researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute have just revealed that the policies of subsidy and export in the European Union, the United States and other industrialized countries (like Japan), are responsible for a loss in income for agricultural producers in the developing countries of some 24 billion dollars. The impact of these policies is most keenly felt in Latin America and the Caribbean, where up to 8.3 billion dollars in income are lost annually. The principal culprit for this commercial distortion is the European Union. In the United States, agricultural producers will receive subsidies of about 19 billion dollars in the year 2003. But the researchers assert that the developing countries would benefit if they reduced their own subsidies for agro-aquatic products, and lowered their import duties. In Mexico, the deep fear felt in the campesino sector is that the free trade in corn is going to turn men of corn into men of straw. But, just how much can the little corn patch compete with industrialized cultivation, and at the same time respond to the ever more pressing need for forest conservation and bio-diversity? And how can the survival of genetic varieties of corn be guaranteed in the face of genetically modified crops?

Mexico has already authorized the importation of genetically modified soybeans, potatoes and tomatoes for human consumption. The researchers state that companies using these products, or their derivatives, in our country include Nestle, Del Fuerte, Bimbo, Maseca, Great Value, Gamesa, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola. Consumers cannot know whether they are ingesting GM products, because there is no legal obligation to label them as such, unlike in England, where people are aware of the debate about possible effects on human health, agriculture and the environment. Under the rules of the WTO, a warning to the consumer that something might contain a GM product or a derivative, can be prohibited as a “non-customs obstacle”. Twelve years ago, when the WTO did not exist and trade was partially regulated by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), I published an article in the New York Times in defense of the dolphins caught by tuna fishing, and about Mexico’s complaint to GATT about the embargo on Mexican tuna in the United States. That was when I learnt about “non-customs obstacles”, that is to say: laws, regulations or policies of a country that have nothing to do with customs duties, but can affect and restrict trade. Prohibition of these “non-customs obstacles” can limit this country’s ability to protect its citizens from substances or products that it considers harmful to the public health or the environment. A country’s sovereignty obliges it to care for its citizens and its environment, and it seems obvious that this should take precedence over free trade. It is unacceptable that the internal policies of a country in regard to food or the environment be dictated in secret by a tribunal of experts from the WTO. Furthermore, the precautionary principle in international commerce needs to be recognized. If an industry wishes to market and export a product it should be required to first demonstrate the safety of such a product, instead of the present situation, whereby governments are obliged to supply scientific evidence of risk before the product can be banned, or its importation prohibited.

Another key issue at the conference is an agreement upon access to cheap medicine in developing countries with a health crisis, such as the African nations where the rate of HIV infection is up to 25% of the population. It involves allowing the importation of generic versions of pharmaceutical products without having to comply with patent obligations. The pharmaceutical industry exercises a powerful influence upon these negotiations, and for the time being this agreement is deadlocked.

What do the economists say? Jeffrey Sachs argues that “we need a new globalization strategy that ensures that a greater part of the world benefits from the expansion of global markets”. Robert Skidelsky, in his analysis of the book Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism by the financial speculator George Soros, asks some questions to determine what would be a suitable international system order to sustain an “open society”. “How much instability can society bear? How much control of internal factors do donors of assistance need in order to ensure efficiency? What is clear, is the need to invest more in education, and in science and technology (without neglecting the study of humanities).

The international movement opposed to neo-liberal globalization has increased through the meetings and demonstrations in places as far removed from each other as Seattle, Bangkok, Porto Alegre, Genoa and Prague. Among the civil society activists involved in a whole range of activities alongside the official conference will be found campesinos, environmentalists, fishermen, pacifists, union members, indigenous peoples, defenders of animal rights, opponents of genetically modified marine and agricultural products, opponents of privatization of public services such as education and water, supporters of “fair trade”, experts in government and corruption, financial and trade policies, proponents of cultural diversity, zapatistas, atencos (people from Atenco, near Mexico City, who came out with machetes to stop construction of the new airport in their ejido) and barzonistas (a mostly agricultural and middle-class, but very vocal, group, demanding relief from debt caused by government policies). The security forces will also be in attendance. There has already been criticism of harassment of the civil society by the government, such as cancellation of hotel reservations, insistence upon FM 3 visas for foreign participants, and a black list of supposed undesirables. This includes recognized leaders of public opinion like Vandana Shiva from India, Martin Kohr (Malaysia), Maude Barlow (Canada), Ignacio Ramonet (France) and Ralph Nader (United States), as well as members of the Italian White Monkeys and the Sin Tierra Movement from Brazil. Apart from the maritime fence around Cancun to stop acts of terrorism, we trust there will be no crackdown against foreigners or Mexicans, although violence would not be surprising..

From the perspective of the globalifobicos (opponents of globalization), the desire to promote global free trade is promoting global inequality. Maybe the principal defect of the WTO as a world organization is that it lacks democratic legitimacy.